Thursday, April 16, 2015


***This post is dedicated to James R. Vallandingham. He enjoyed reading this blog.***

3 bridges right to left: 1 bombed out bridge, 1 under construction, and 1 temporary bridge
I'm heading out of the town of Neak Luong, cruising east down Highway 1. With no auto taxis in this part of Cambodia, I'm riding on the back of a motorbike taxi. It's not my preference, but there's no other option in this rural locale. With hot tropical air blowing in my face, we turn north, onto a bumpy dirt road. Out here in the countryside, away from the highways there are few paved roads.

Passing by rice paddies, we slow down to arrive at three bridges, all parallel to each other. The oldest bridge on this river is only ruined foundations; it was destroyed during the war years. We make a noisy crossing over metal planks, on a temporary one lane military style bridge. Just next to it, bare steel reaches up from the concrete supports of a third larger bridge under construction. Infrastructure like the new bridge is sorely needed in this poverty stricken province.

Before continuing on, I'm startled by a Russian made helicopter from Vietnam. It swoops low overhead as it flies eastward towards home. Young Khmer boys run up to the road, yelling at the chopper in threatening tones. Even though the war between the Khmers and Vietnam ended years ago, there's still a great deal of hatred directed at the Vietnamese.

We continue down the remote rural road, until minutes later arriving at our destination, the village of Svay Samsep.

Nakri at right, with her cousin
It's here that my guide introduces me to Nakri. Her name translates as a type of flower, which is fitting, since she's wearing a red flowered skirt. She's somewhere in her 50's, but she looks younger than her years. Her hair is styled in an old fashioned 1960's bob. Through her smile, I can see three gold teeth.

Nakri invites us to have a seat in the shade outside her village home. Over the next hour, her story unfolds. Like all Khmers who survived the war years, both Nakri and her village went through quite an ordeal.  

Back in the 1960's before the war, Svay Samsep was a quiet farming community. Nakri's family owned a lot of land, and her father was the village headman. As village leader, he was also loyal to King Sihanouk. When war came in 1970, and Sihanouk joined the Khmer Rouge, that meant that her little village joined the Khmer Rouge side too. Simple country people like Nakri knew nothing about communism. But just like their king, they were suckered into joining the Khmer Rouge. They had no idea that the genocidal communists would later destroy Cambodia.

As more Cambodians loyal to the king went to the countryside to join the fight, the nearby hills of Phnom Cheu Kach became a Khmer Rouge stronghold. I can see those hills today, and since they're close to the village, the war came to this quiet farming community. Nakri was in her 20’s, when her village was bombed for the first time.

“Afternoon bombing,” she tells me, “some people died.”

Over time, Svay Samsep and the surrounding landscape were hit with many B-52 strikes from the US  Air Force. The village didn't have many direct hits like the bombing that had hit Neak Luong, but there were many near misses. After one bombing close call, Nakri said that, “every building in the village had cracked walls.”

Some of the attacks lasted for hours, and this wasn’t just from aerial bombing, but from artillery attacks as well. Nakri recalls, “Sometimes  bombings were from 3pm, all the way until the next morning.”

Rusted tailfin from a 500 pound bomb dropped by a B-52 during the war
Walking towards her house, Nakri shows me a rusty, twisted tailfin lying on the ground. This is a tailfin from an American 500 pound bomb, dropped from a B-52 sortie during those dangerous days. There were so many B-52 air raids, that when the bombings finally ceased in 1973,  numerous large bomb craters remained surrounding the village. Later, Khmer Rouge executioners used some of these massive craters to bury corpses of those they murdered.

Even though Nakri's village had sided with the Khmer Rouge, that wasn't enough to save all of her family when the radicals took over. Nakri was sent to a neighboring province to work on a forced labor commune, and three of her seven siblings died during the Pol Pot years. They learned too late how the Khmer Rouge really were. 

Nakri's cousin, who is sitting with us, chimes in, “Pol Pot Regime, didn’t give us enough food.” Many who died during the Khmer Rouge years weren't just executed, others died from starvation.

Fortunately for Nakri, she had a skill the Khmer Rouge needed. “I know about weaving and sewing,” she tells me. 

That skill may have saved her life, as she no longer had to work slave labor in the fields. “Pol Pot people stop me farming, have me make krama,” Nakri says. The krama is the traditional red and white Khmer scarf, worn by all Khmer Rouge cadres. Today she's wearing a krama of a different style. It's checkered blue and white; she also wove it herself.

When the Khmer Rouge were forced from power, Nakri and her father returned  to their village. “When people come back, every village so quiet,” she recalled, “you could choose anywhere to live.” Many villages were virtual ghost towns then. But during that time it was also chaos. With no rule of law to protect them, Nakri's family lost most of their land. 

Hills where Khmer Rouge guerrillas once hid, are now used to supply construction sand.
Later Nakri's life took a turn for the better. After the Khmer Rouge were ousted, she married. Her new husband was a former student. Since he didn’t have any ties to the Khmer Rouge, he was able to become a police officer in 1980. He is now the village police chief.

In recent years, Nakri started her own business. As construction has picked up, she began selling sand to builders. I look over at the nearby hills of Phnom Cheu Kach. Even from here, I can see the yellowish scars of bare earth, where large sections of the hills were cut away. This is where Nakri gets sand for her business; her workers dig it out of the ground in that former Khmer Rouge stronghold.

Most of the massive bomb craters around the village are filled in now, as local farmers use the land for agriculture again. But her village still has a lot of unexploded munitions. Just last week, Nakri called up a demining group, asking them to come remove the bombs that still threaten their safety.

I notice Nakri still has short hair, rare for ethnic Khmer women these days. She wears the same bob hairstyle that the Khmer Rouge forced all women to wear back during their era of terror. Another remnant of those years, is her dislike for the Vietnamese, much like the kids I saw earlier.  

But overall, life has improved here for Nakri and her family. “My family is ‘normal’ now,” Nakri says. “With my husband as policeman, I don’t worry about anything.”

Hmmm... I wonder...  where did she get the money to buy those gold teeth? From her sand business, or from her husband the policeman??


  1. Thank you Kandla! I am glad that you liked the story. Best regards to you.